Digital citizen engagement: redesigning local government services in a digital framework

Governments are mandated to serve all constituent groups in their jurisdictions, however, budget reductions and austerity programs have strained their ability to provide an adequate level of service. Many cities and regional districts are looking to digital technology to deliver new services, address existing problems, and reshape citizen engagement.

Sean O’Brien, deputy general manager and head of IVE Public Services and Healthcare, SAP, talks to SAP News about how digital technology is being used to help cities grow economic prosperity, improve safety and security, and become more resilient – for real impact on citizens’ quality of life.

Q: The World Bank recently issued a reportin which it defined digital citizen engagement is defined as “the use of new media/digital information and communication technologies to create or enhance the communication channels that facilitate the interaction between citizens and governments or the private sector.” Do you agree?

A: For time immemorial, the mandate of government has been to do three things: deliver prosperity; provide services, legislation, and policy for its citizens; and deliver protection. I agree that in digital citizen engagement we see the use of digital technologies to enhance the communication channels between citizens and governments and the private sector – but I would also say it is evolving beyond communication and interaction. It’s about how services are delivered; how new services can be created; and who delivers those services. Digital technology can change the way people look at a problem; collaborate to solve the problem; and the way people improve the outcome. As an enabler, it changes the reach of government to bring in new groups of people that previously haven’t been engaged and enabled to participate. I agree broadly with that statement but I do think it’s also a little narrow.

Q: “Increased use of technology brings both opportunities and challenges to the citizen engagement process,” the World Bank observed. As a technology provider, what opportunities does SAP see with its Future Cities agenda? What has been the impact so far of digital citizen engagement?

A: We’re still relatively early in the digital journey. For a lot of cities and governments at a regional and local level, there’s been a real emphasis around cost reduction by improving digital technology to allow citizens to self-serve. Citizens that are able to can access services; they can understand and communicate effectively with government; they can influence and participate in decision making. We’ve primarily looked at it initially as reducing cost, improving efficiency to maintain the same level of service, but also delivering that in a different way.

At SAP we’ve identified three things we need to do to digitally transform the city. We need to help grow the prosperity; we need to help improve safety and security; and help the cities become more resilient.

Q: What are SAP’s priorities for its Future Cities agenda? How do these technology business priorities align with real-world trends we are seeing in the public sector?

A: When we think about the Future Cities challenge, three themes emerge: resiliency, digital transformation, and economic prosperity. In terms of resiliency , a good example is the city of Buenos Aires, which has been prone to serious flooding. One of their challenges was that when it rains the drains can’t take the water away fast enough and the drains get blocked. By putting sensors in the drains, they were able to analyze where they needed to deploy their resources in real time to fix the drains and stop the consequential flooding. It’s been very successful.

In terms of digital transformation , a good example is the state of Indiana. They wanted to reduce the rates of child infant mortality. To do that, they really needed to get all the data sets across the state and analyze those in a very scientific way. They brought the business people who deal with child infant affairs into that discussion to work on teams with the decision makers, program makers, and policy makers. Data allowed them to understand, plan, prioritize, and target risk groups. There is a program in place now to target risk mothers and digital media will play a role in reaching out to those groups.

In terms of economic prosperity , the city of Nanjing in China, for example, is using digital technology along with the ability to engage citizens and the service providers to understand where traffic and taxis are concentrated and where the flows of traffic are moving. They are able then to communicate that information to the citizens, so they can make better choices about their transport options. You can use digital technology across the whole network of activities to improve an outcome: reducing flood risks, reducing child infant mortality, and improving transport. All those things have a real impact on the city and the quality of life of the citizens themselves.

Q: At SAP, we talk about multi-channel constituent engagement. How are these new digital services being structured and what touch points are being taken into consideration?

A: When we think about constituent engagement, the first thing to remember is it’s not one dimensional. More and more citizens may want a digital channel – but that’s not every citizen. Digital engagement and a digital experience isn’t suitable for everybody – but by enabling more of those services to be available digitally, more citizens can take advantage of that and self-serve, which gives more time for those that choose not to use a digital channel to spend on face-to-face interactions or on the phone with the right person in government to help them.

A lot of the processes in the public sector are structured for the physical world. When we think about how digital services are delivered and how citizens engage in those services, we have to think very differently in how we design them, how we build the digital tools and the digital platform to serve the citizens, how people consume information, and how they share the information. When we think of SAP technology supporting this, a lot of our customers want choice of channel. The digital channel is their default channel, but they need to provide a breadth of choice. They’ve also seen the need to involve multiple actors in the delivery of that service. So, they want simplicity too. In the digital SAP white paper “Frictionless Government” we looked at how can we reshape our thinking and redesign our services and structures so that the citizen is truly at the heart of how the service is delivered, presented, and consumed, and they are happy with the outcome? That’s a very different philosophy.

Q: Digital citizen engagement is emerging in response to a growing demand for transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in setting policy and providing services. With public projects, funding is often a sensitive issue. How are digital citizen engagement projects being funded?

A: The mandate to govern – to protect, to prosper, to provide – is there. So, governments aren’t able to say we’re not going to service this group of citizens. They have to; they’re mandated to provide those services. But if you think about the reality of the situation of government, they have less budget, for example. As I mentioned earlier on, the reason why they are delivering this digital-by-default is so they can deliver the same services at a lower costs. We also see much more informed citizens. This issue of transparency, accountability, and participation in a decision-making process is something that governments have to provide for. I don’t think it’s a do-nothing, “we can’t fund it” type of thing. If governments are more transparent and accountable, have citizens participating, they make better and more cost-effective decisions, and they improve outcomes, then you would argue that the public value has been demonstrated.

Q: What are the risks and challenges for these projects?

A: I think one of the main risks when you embark on a digital strategy for government is to keep in mind that it’s not a technology project. It is fundamentally a way of rethinking how the service is constructed and delivered, how people and actors play a role in that service, and how the outcomes are affected, delivered, and achieved. You need to drive these projects differently. It can’t be an IT project delivered traditionally by the IT departments. You have to bring communities, the users, and the citizens in the process together when you’re designing and ideating around what you’re going to do. The risk with digital citizen engagement projects is that it’s seen as an IT project or it’s delivered without fundamentally rethinking the business model, process, and approach, as well as not including those people who are going to be consuming the service in that early stage.

Q: How should digital citizen engagement projects be evaluated?

A: If my objective is to reduce costs, has the project done that? If my objective has been to improve the citizen experience for those people who use the digital experience, has it done that? Also, has it actually helped us shape outcomes? Have we used data to improve our performance? Have we changed the way the service is delivered? Have we brought in more stakeholders and actors into the process to better service the citizen?

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